DÍA DE LOS DIFUNTOS
Soledad had just turned fourteen when she found out her mother had died. It was October, days before Halloween. The Andean grass was arid and yellow, and the city had finally painted over the graffiti signs near her apartment building. As they drove home from the hospital, Soledad followed the skyline with her index finger. One by one, the tall buildings in Quito collapsed, pushed by Soledad’s finger and the speed of their Toyota. Dentist offices, newspaper headquarters, embassy buildings, and the apartments of several widowed grandmothers fell into the petroleum streets. Men and women in the streets ran away in terror. Stray dogs and underground rats, too. Her father spoke to her gently, his right hand moving the rearview mirror, searching for Soledad in the back seat.
Two years have passed since then. The buildings that Soledad pushed with her finger stand still and upright; incoming planes dodge them as they try to land in the Mariscal Sucre airport. The parched October land has recovered with April and its thousand showers, and collapsed, again, by the fall breeze.
Soledad is now a senior in high school. After finishing her homework, she slowly enters the kitchen like she slowly enters every room in their apartment. Her father sits at their table. He glances at the book of recipes in front of him. He shaved off his moustache that morning, and Soledad barely recognizes him; the man who sits on her kitchen table wears her father’s clothes—the brown pants with the ink stain that never washed away properly, the red tie she chewed on when she was little, the glasses that became bigger and bigger as father ages— and looks back at her. Soledad still wears the basketball shorts and sports bra from her after-school practice that day, her body moist with cold sweat.
The light bulb hangs low, so low that Soledad hits it when she stands up too quickly, illuminating the brown stain at the front of the recipe book. This was Mami’s book, and the brown stain is Soledad’s. A remnant of the day they made chocolate cake. The post-it attached to the recipe book is father’s: a purple post-it stuck on the Día de los Difuntos recipe. Soledad walks towards her father and hovers over his shoulder.
“Tonight?” she asks him.
Father grabs her hand and nods. Soledad sits next to him, pulls the recipe book towards her and opens it to the noted page. The recipe for guaguas de pan—small, sweet bread in the shape of a baby wrapped in a shawl—was something they’d do together, Mami, father, and Soledad. On November 2nd, if nobody close to them had died, they would bake the guaguas de pan, make colada morada—the scent of the day of the dead food filled their home—and decorate their apartment with flowers. Father and Soledad make guaguas de pan and colada morada alone now. They make it for Mami.
Soledad’s hands grab the dough delicately. While father stirs the colada morada pot, purple bubbles popping, Soledad rolls the dough with her fingers. She forms the body of the baby, a small child wrapped in his mother’s shawl, his arms tucked to his sides, while her mother’s hands guide hers. Open and close your palm, pinch with your fingertips, rip with strength. She places the body on a tray and sticks it in the oven. It doesn’t incinerate. Father gives Soledad a sip of the day of the dead potion: black corn flour, a bushel of fruits, pineapple, naranjilla, blackberries, babaco, strawberries, and blueberries.
“It’s getting better.”
“I’m getting better?” father asks.
The colada morada sits in the refrigerator all night, and the warm baby sleeps next to it on the counter.
The next morning, before they pack their car with the food they cooked and stored all week—rice, menestras, beef, beans, food for Mami—Soledad looks at her parent’s room from their doorframe. Her mother’s side of the bed is undone. Father is showering. She walks in, carefully thinking about her footsteps and the sound they could make, and stares at the clothes hanging on the closet. Her mother’s elegant dresses hang on the back end, covered with plastic. She grabs a dress and touches it, arm hairs sticking to plastic. Soledad plays with the dangling golden beads. This is the dress her mother wore to graduations and first communions. The beads dangled as she walked. They didn’t make a sound. The golden beads hit Mami’s body and bounced off graciously. Mami was an icon in this dress. Nobody cared how often she wore it.
Outside their apartment, the trees lining their sidewalk are elegantly dressed. The city painted their lower halves white. The telephones poles, too. But the giant palm trees, the trees that obstruct the apartment’s view, are grey, not painted by the city but tainted by the buses and their smog.
The day Mami died, young activists hung a giant white bed sheet near the El Trébol roundabout: the busiest intersection in Quito. Quiteños inside buses and others hailing cabs outside witnessed the sheet absorb smoke over time. Over the course of two days, the young activists roamed the streets, holding up ripped white sheets and protesting the contamination of
their city. Our lungs are that sheet, they’d say, pointing at the bed sheet that hung like a flag. On the opposite side of the now grey bed sheet, the enormous painting of Manuelita Saénz—a revolutionary leader in Ecuador, Bolívar’s long-term mistress, and later another married aristocrat in Peru’s capital—oversaw the city. Passengers catching the bus to work witnessed the eyes of Manuelita staring back at them. During those days of protest, Manuelita too observed the white sheet become greyer and greyer. The day of Mami’s funeral, the sheet was black.
The cemetery Soledad’s mother is buried in stands in front of a food chain store and next to one of the biggest bus stations in Quito. From their car, Soledad and father watch buses filled with people pass by the cemetery. Quiteños holding flowers and plastic containers filled with food get out of those buses and walk to the cemetery; they find their dead loved one’s hole in the wall, hang flowers—some hang plastic flowers because they dislike the idea of another thing dying—sit in front of their tomb, and take out the food. Four chicken legs because you liked to bite them and let the sauce drain down your chin, they tell the wall. Three ears of corn buttered and salted. The stinky cheese you liked too much; let it sit out here a while longer. A bread in the shape of a baby with a smile drawn out in sugar, and a cup of our day of the dead potion. We’ll drink it with you. You’ve always enjoyed it. The stray dogs and cats watching from a hill next to the bus station smell the food and plan their evenings. Late at night, when the dead eat the food and the stray dogs and cats fight them for it, a man who hates artificial flowers will pick up all the plastic plants and replace them with live ones: red wet roses. These will not last all year.
Next year, when those families come back to feed the dead, the flowers will be gone. A thief, they’ll think. The smog from the buses also painted the trees in the cemetery grey.
This is the third and final year Soledad and her father will bring food for their mother. This is the last time she’ll need it. They’ll still make guaguas de pan and colada morada in the future, but they won’t feed it to Mami. She’ll be well on her way to the afterlife.
Mami’s stone is marked with golden letters—MARÍA LAURA BENITEZ. The old women who always hover and always cry nearby say, “She died too young, in her prime.” The strangers’ heads always covered with beautiful black veils for the day of the dead. Their mouths painted red, the color of the live roses. They don’t know Mami. They never knew her. Soledad traces the carved words with her index finger and wonders why her mother was taken away in her prime. Or whether that was Mami’s prime. Taking care of an adolescent who yells at her when Friday nights come around—“Everybody’s going to the party, why can’t I?” “Because it’s not safe”—or refuses to try new food, or hates going to church on Sundays, or compares her life to hers: “I hope I never have children.”
Soledad cries as she touches the white rose father placed on Mami’s grave. “Ya, mijita, everything’s okay,” father soothes her, mustache still missing, glasses a bit bigger. Soledad looks up at the sky, white clouds fighting rain clouds, the volcano Pichincha staring at the ones visiting the dead, and decides this was the worst holiday ever created.
“Can we go home?” Soledad asks her father. The food around Mami’s grave smells so good, other families surrounding them become jealous. They only brought chicken soup and mozzarella cheese.
Father sits down in front of Mami’s grave. Soledad looks around: a multitude of families encircling their loved one’s graves, delicious food scents carried on by the Andean wind, a mixture of cries and laughter. She sits down and stares up at Mami’s grave. Other crypts surround her crypt. Most of those people died more than ten years ago.
Mami wasn’t technically buried, Soledad thinks as father talks about her. She lies in a coffin stuck on a white wall, surrounded by other coffins and people who visit them, thinking a tree will grow right where their loved one is buried. A tree can’t grow from a wall. Who gets to be buried underground?
Mami died in a car crash. She was driving up to Quito through Nayón, the Garden of Quito. The Nayón women and men who sell their flowers witness a lot of deaths—they live near cliffs, and the fog that descends at seven does not help the distracted drivers who talk on their phones—but Mami’s death went unnoticed.
Soledad’s mother left her workplace before the fog descended from the Andean mountains. She drove past the massive bronze condor that oversees the rest of the Cumbayá valley, and then the radio turned mute, or so Soledad likes to think. Years later, she still shivers every time she imagines her mother’s car gliding off a cliff with a soundtrack playing in the background. Please don’t let it be the newest pop hit.
The car got stuck between two large trees, and, together, they formed an H. Mami’s body fell from the open car door and branches and debris fell on her. The trash that others throw while driving through Nayón, the shit they don’t like concealing in their car. This is what the newspaper said. They printed it because this is how the police found her. Soledad thought Mami was buried there, in Nayón, next to the men and women who sell their flowers, underground.
As he talks about his wife, father looks at the guagua de pan sitting in front of his dead wife’s tomb. The guagua de pan wasn’t always a child wrapped in his mother’s shawl. He remembers making his own guaguas de pan when he was little, and he once told this to Soledad, but when does Soledad ever listen to him now? The term guagua—child in Kichwa—only applied to father, not the being he was shaping. Back then, the bread took the shape of the dead, any shape that may be, and children would create life out of them: the dead represented as llamas, cows, bunnies, condors. Father would eat the animals and other beings they left behind at home as soon as they’d come back from burying grandfather or grandmother. The colada morada was the potion the dead would drink, and he or she would be symbolized as a bread, a sweet bread, tossed around in their old kitchen, sweetness licked by their loving relatives.
But generations before father, the guagua de pan didn’t exist. The potion was made by those who unburied their dead and celebrated with them their passing, the rain, new life. Live beings touching dead beings, bones shaking, rot unearthed. Father likes to think the dogs howling on the hill nearby won’t eat the bread Soledad made last night. It is a baby wrapped in a shawl—babies Soledad eats in school, dipped in the hot purple potion—but it is also his wife, and they can’t kill her again.
“Are you listening to me?” father asks Soledad. She looks up at him, her eyes overwhelmed by her thoughts and that landscape.
“I’m trying to remember something funny that happened with Mami. Other people are laughing at their memories together.” Father looks at his surroundings. All he sees is a multitude of widowers sitting next to their children. This city is making everyone a widow, he thinks as he drinks some colada morada. The scent goes up his nose and sits in his head as he imagines María Laura sitting next to them, enjoying the colada morada he made for her. She will wonder where the moustache went, why the recipe book is post-it labeled and color coded, and why Soledad still hasn’t showered since her basketball practice—he never really could take care of her alone.
“We won’t come back next year, so I guess we better tell all of our stories now. Should we tell the ones we told last year?” Soledad continues.
“You don’t think Mami will listen later? When we’re not here?”
“No, I mean, I don’t know, you’re the one who insists we come here every November.
Shouldn’t you be the adult here and lead?”
“What I’m trying to say—” father says as he grabs Soledad’s hand.
“Please don’t say she’s everywhere.”
For two years, every November 2nd, after visiting the cemetery and dropping off food for Mami, father and Soledad would drive down to Nayón. They would both be somewhat enthusiastic, father’s hands grasping the driving wheel tightly, Soledad’s eyes widening. They wanted to see where her car made the H.
This year, as they approach the cemetery’s parking lot, they pass the men and women who sell flowers. They wave their white roses and sunflowers in the air, signaling father to park near their locales. But father drives on. Soledad and father then count the number of crosses placed near the cliff’s borders. Seventeen. The crosses are made of stone, painted white, stabbed in the ground, and surrounded by blue and pink flowers. These crosses represented bodies. Specifically, the bodies of those who died on these cliffs, or because of these cliffs.
When Mami died, there were only three crosses puncturing the ground. After the accident, two more crosses were added.
Father now parks the car near Mami’s cross and next to the blue heart painted on the street. The hearts symbolize those struck and killed by cars. Quito is sprinkled with blue hearts. Soledad gets out and walks towards the cliff. Father’s heart shakes. Every step Soledad takes towards the cliff is a heart attack for him. She kneels down and touches her mother’s cross.
“Can you believe there are so many?” father asks.
“Yes,” Soledad replies, “I can. Just look at this place.”
If Soledad and father would stay for two more hours, they’d witness another car drive off this cliff. This time it wouldn’t be because of the Andean fog that descends at seven. Or because the driver was drunk or checking his text messages or talking on his cellphone. It’d be because of the curvature of the road, the slimness of the highway, the proximity to nothing, the high possibility of falling. Things fall without being pushed.
Father spots a pack of street dogs walk near them. The dogs sniff their surrounding grounds, some bark at Soledad, but she keeps grazing the grass surrounding Mami’s cross.
“It was one of them,” father says.
“It will never be their fault,” Soledad replies.
“She fell dodging them. Those dogs. They’re everywhere.”
“Papi, that’s not what happened.”
“Sole, Mami fell trying not to kill those dogs. They were crossing the street as she was driving.”
“What else was Mami supposed to do?”
Tears begin to stream down father’s face. They land on the bed of his top lip and form a lake. Father licks the salty tears and walks towards his daughter.
Several rats begin to crawl out of the trash sitting at the bottom of the precipice. The pack of dog runs down the cliff, chasing the rats, some grasping them with their sharp teeth and foaming mouths. Soledad stands up and stares at the animals fight each other in the place her mother’s body fell.
Later father is in the kitchen, soap bubbles covering his nails. Is he thinking of the dogs, the street, and the cliff? There was only one blue heart painted on that street. The neighborhood painted two more after María Laura’s accident. Soledad knows her father never accepted his wife’s death. It would’ve been much easier, he always said, if María Laura wasn’t behind the wheel. If instead, she was the blue heart painted on the street, like the ones he sees to work every day. If she would’ve been the pedestrian that walked near the cliff that day, curious about the depth of the precipice but afraid of the rats underground. The scrubbing of the plastic containers is too loud to hear his daughter over. Soledad takes this as an opportunity; she opens the door to the master bedroom slowly and enters their walk-in closet. The yellow light from the lampposts—painted half-white—illuminates the bedroom. The dress with the golden beads hangs quietly inside the plastic wrapper. No signs of grey. Soledad steals the dress, and as she carries it to her bedroom, she holds it up high. The fabric shouldn’t touch their wooden floor. In bed, she tucks the dress in next to her. As she falls asleep, Soledad plays with the golden beads, sometimes pressing them hard against her fingertips. Mami, regresa. Mami, mírame, Mami, come back. Outside, tall buildings fall to the ground.